© 2018 by Overwhelming Imagination 

Digital Technologies in Art

Panel Discussion

July 4, 2016 | 10:00-12:30 

With the first panel of our conference, we want to focus on current global systems of ever-increasing formations of networked and online communities. Whilst artists investigating spaces and brand-new technological forms is not a novelty, this exploration has continuities with the artistic community utilizing virtual worlds as a new form, or potential artistic space. Artists’ critical engagement is central to ensuring that the tools that we ultimately embrace will be as human-centric and open as possible. One might ask any contemporary artist at the moment, as a kind of litmus test, the following series of questions: Are you working primarily “on” the digital or “within” it? Is the computer incidental to your work, a tool like any other? What does it mean to interact in the digital spaces of the Internet? How does digitization affect artistic practice?

Digitality today is usually understood in terms of the flexibility or inconstancy of the substrate (the so-called crisis of indexicality), or alternately in terms of network phenomena like circulation and dispersal. Yet, at the same time, such ideas are now being challenged through recent theories brought together under the term ‘new materialism’. Projects such as Speculative Realism (or Materialism) and Object Oriented Ontology are working to overturn the theorization of the relationship between subject and world as formulated in postmodernism. In pushing against forms of abstraction, tied to historical narratives of immateriality, we might need to re-think a lot of parameters: the use and re-use of digital forms; the existing frameworks for understanding works that inhabit multiple instantiations, such as ‘post-medium’; the re-organization of categories of production through new contextual definitions and demarcations; and the maintenance of categories such as ‘the artwork’ within automated systems. The aim of this first panel is therefore to consider these significant technological and discursive shifts, as well as correspondences between the two, in relation to both making and looking at images or works of art.

Today, the territory no longer precedes the map: all the places we aim to visit have been visited by us before. We have looked at satellite pictures, we have followed our curser to navigate through high-definition street views, and we have seen the pictures taken by our friends, filtered by the geo-located tags of the social networking sites we are part of. This data space continually and recursively informs how we navigate and perceive spaces, landscapes and cities, by making them ‘smarter’, more complex. Deniz Baliz is concentrating in her text “Datascape as urban space: mapping as an experimental concept in the post-digital age” on the paradigm shift in our current conception of cities from material to immaterial reality. This allows a continuous interchangeability between physical and digital mediums, the city and its representation become of equal importance. The next step now has to be to challenge and test the status quo and find new dimensions of mapping. Deniz Balik introduces projects that develop new experiences with the site; not epistemological and representational but experimental, speculative, and artistic. 

Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau will continue this search for possibilities through “interruptive practices” in his paper “Networks, Art & Interruption.” This research is part of The Bad Vibe Club’s “Interruption” project. Interruption is typically seen as an unwanted interference into the flow of something, though it can be seen as transformative, a radical re-imagining of practice. de Kersaint Giraudeau presents a history of ‘screen interruptions,’ from 1971 to today, introducing examples of the use of interruption in non-art practices and also problematizing interruption. To return to the question of what interruption as an artistic practice can offer to artists and society. 

John Hill’s paper “Autopoesis: Social and Anti-Social Machines” describes Autopoiesis as a way of understanding the world. We are still in a phase, where the idea of the notion of the world’s being a great machine is still unchallenged and where we predominantly use machines to describe the world. Machines operate not only as a metaphor, but also as an ideological framework for determining what it is possible to observe and measure. John Hill raises the question if there aren’t other ways that offer better or at least other ways of formulating models to describe and understand our world. John Hill is introducing & updating the model of Autopoiesis that was developed by biologist Humberto Maturana. This is especially needed as the global scale of topics like anthropogenic climate change & the anthropocene, as well as genetic engineering and biohacking require new methodological tools do tackle these questions. 

Data has come to play an increasingly important role in our society, not only as a primary source of surplus value and profit, but also as a resource for the reflective work on our selves. Winnie Soon does research on “Executing queries as a form of artistic practice”. Her paper explores the increasing number of artists that use computational “queries” as a method to search, collect and re-represent online data that expose some of the distributed dynamics of the network. With the current proliferation of technology, data are increasingly generated and disseminated in real-time through a highly networked, programmable and distributed environment. At the same time data queries are also highly capitalized in this global state. In particular, the offering of the digital object- Application Programming Interface (API) is exceptionally becoming a commonplace for most commercial companies, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Weibo. API is a set of protocols and specifications that make data query accessible.  Soon will look at a possibility to turn API into a disruptive query as it undergoes constant update that is influenced by wider economic, political and business logics. 

- Anna-Viktoria Eschbach



Anna-Viktoria Eschbach: All of the artworks you presented were working at the border between art and technology. As someone who also works as a curator, I was wondering how much it actually still makes sense to present those works in traditional art institutions? As those institutions have a tendency to disconnect themselves from technological developments. Or if this is a chance to revitalize those art institutions and to create a bigger interaction between institutions and their audiences?

John Hill: Surprisingly for me, the work that I am doing at the moment brings an importance back to the existence of institutions. That is not something I had the feeling for before quite recently. Especially in digital culture and with digital platforms you have interruptions brought instantaneously into the flow of those systems. Whereas this anti-social institution, this institution that intentionally separates itself, can hold potentials to do things differently. But obviously we understand that the institutions are also brought back into the flow very quickly.

Deniz Balik: Institutions should be more places that give you an opportunity for research and for conservation of knowledge. I am working with my students to integrate everyday life practices and politics and social and cultural criticism into artworks. It opens up perspectives and leads to new questions that are not predetermined by teachers and school systems. This is the idea of academia for me in a nutshell. But academia and artists should work closer on this topic together. 

Winnie Soon: This question is very closely linked with my practice as a net-artist or software-artist. One instance is the concept of the Speed Show by the German artist Aram Bartholl to rent out an Internet café. I am very interested in non-institutional ways to exhibit works. But some of the works I showed, especially the net-art generated project by Helen Pritchard, can also be accessed through the Web. But in the exhibition context she will show more of the infrastructure and highlights the sculptural side. It allows talking about topics like the cloud. What is the cloud? It is linked to physical machines. This physicality is something very important in digital artworks. One important aspect of institutions is that they help frame the work. There was an exhibition called “Future Everything” in Manchester, UK. They collected works from very different aspects of data. It gave a very useful overview to the topic of data. 

Deniz Balik: The critical point of combining digital technologies and art is that you can leave these categories of beautiful, ugly and other traditional notions of aesthetics. You can talk about ideas and producing concepts. It introduces a lot of new perspectives.

Kelly Doley: I am interested in the archive, particularly what you are talking about, Winnie. On the Internet the present technology is already over by the end of the day. It is like updates, updates, updates. So how do you then archive those works, when you are using things in your works like QR-codes that could be outdated.  Or the works from the 90s that are on CD-Rom and are virtually impossible to show now. How does the museum or art institution keep up with showing that work, because it is so important to show these works 20, 30 years later?

Winnie Soon: This is a very problematic question for my artworks. Three month ago I was asked to exhibit a work again from more of an archival perspective. With the update of the API, of the tweets, we could not simply reproduce it. What we then did was an archive in the form of a book. We archived some of the concepts and thinking in the book as well as the QR-codes. It is not only documentation, but also a performative piece. We choose this very different form to rethink what an archive means in the time of the Internet. 

Katherine Grube: It seems to me that, what unites all of your presentations is, to restore through various strategies the human in the digital. Through various strategies of interruption or a query could be considered that or mapping geographies and intervening in physical space or whether it is through the construction of an exteriority.  Could we consider that a restoration of the human or a foregrounding of the human?

John Hill: There is an idea that also Deniz mentioned of the embodiment. There is a restoration of the body as the body experiences. But this idea to me as the human, as this subjectivity is not something I would stress. The digital allows us to shift very much what we understand individual or personal or the imagined endpoint of this to be, the idea that identities are plural and not singular.

Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau: It is definitely true that my interruptions require an audience and therefore they are essentially social. But Winnie and I were talking last night about the non-human agency of code and I am sure that there are examples for interruptions that are witness or have an audience of non-humans. 

Winnie Soon: I think the basic idea behind your question is what constitutes a human. A very philosophical question that is extremely hard to answer. In my work I give a voice to non-human agency. Non-human can also extend to animals, insects plants etc. In my work I don’t try to exclude humans but open it up to other agency to insert something in the concept of the artwork. I allow the query itself to play out in the networks. Code-interaction, code with database, code with platforms have their agency hidden, while they are increasingly impacting humans and ecological systems. We tend to trust these structures; we tend to trust what has been presented to us. So by moving behind the human center, I want to see if there is another perspective to understand the materiality of our computational ecologies. 

Audience Question: I am wondering what could be the critical potential of non-human agencies in this area of big data?

John Hill: One of the things I was trying to say in the presentation is that performing criticality by looking at a system that you are part of as if from an external position. In relation to your question, when we think of the cloud, server forms and fiber optics, but it is also us and our phones and our communication. So how do we have some form of critical position to that thing that we are inside of and an integral part of? For me the answer would be that we also have to be part of separate systems. How can we be part of other cultures, perhaps disconnected cultures that allow us to reflect on these other systems that we are part of? And how will these systems allow us to critically reflect on these very small-scale, local, personal systems that we are part of? 

Winnie Soon: I am working now for several years on the question of the criticality in digital practices. My approach is to directly work with the technology to understand the data structure and to see what parameters exclude data.  

Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau: In terms of the cloud it reminds me of a term of the hyper-object that Timothy Morton used in the context of climate change. An object that is so massively distributed through space and time that it is incomprehensible to the humans. If your question is how do we access something like the cloud then the term of the hyper-object is useful because it immediately recognizes that any kind of representation or engagement even through artworks with the cloud is going to be inadequate, but this is the relationship that each individual human has with something like the cloud. It is necessary that you fail to interact with it. 

Zandie Brockett: I wanted to ask Matthew to speak more about the need for the intervener to have an understanding of the system itself they are intervening in and the particular habits and rules that regulate that system. Or do you think it could be more universal and they don’t have to understand the rules of that system? And whether or not you think intervention can be scalable? 

Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau: Something like art kind of has this idea of being a very specific interruption into a certain context like a gallery space or just something that we can use as a metaphor. That is probably where it is definitely scalable. For example “Reflectoporn”: These people aren’t interested in the wider meaning of their images or what they might mean as interruption. They are just interested in the perverse use of the technology and how to infiltrate it. For me interruption is a framing devise to look at art history in a slightly different way. 

Elena Korowin: I would like to ask a follow-up question: I was wondering if there is a difference between interruption and an intervention? And if you have a working definition or some examples that would explain the difference? 

Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau: In 1971 “TV Interruptions” happened on Scottish television with works by David Hall. And then in 1990 - this is why it is very specific to the British context - there was a program that repeated the idea on Channel 4, which is another national channel. But they called it “TV Interventions” and commissioned a wide range of artists to make very short pieces of video. This time they were shown with announcements and credits. Some was community inspired work, some of it was criticizing television and some of it was more like David Hall’s work. So interruption in the specific history I am looking at is about being anonymous and intervention is where you have very clear authorship. Also interruption requires an interrupted person whereas intervention just requires a context. 

Song Borim: I think, the personal perspectives, narrations, motivations are really important for understanding any art practice. Matthew, what was your starting point for your research on interruptions? In my view “interruption” could be a really helpful term or tool for pedagogical practices, if we want to teach children about contemporary art. 

Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau: The project on interruptions is supported by the Field Broadcast. They offered their platform to artists and in their kind of mission statement they used the word “interruption” a lot. I think that was a self-conscious use referring to things like David Hall. My initial interest when I approached them was in interruptions as kind of an avant-garde practice and a radical political practice and also with interruptions being the basis of marketing and advertisement. On a surface level you would think that they are totally opposed but they share very practical tools. This mischievous edge, exploring grey areas and ugly relationships makes it so interesting. 

Winnie Soon: With interruptions I am also thinking of expected consequences in particular at the realization of computational projects, when interruptions are something unexpected, something that cannot be predicted. 

Zandie Brockett: I am thinking about how there have been developments of robots that have replaced physical labor. In the future there will be Artificial Intelligence to replace cognitive and intellectual labor. For this the idea of interruption or intervention becomes very interesting as humans will still be able to spontaneously react to scenarios, as AI’s will never be able to do. 

Kiki Linyao Liu: When receiving and working with information is so important in this context what is different in the relationship with media? What changed for example in comparison to the days of newspapers?

Winnie Soon: When you talk about understanding information and in relation to more traditional media, I would underline one difference: the notion of execution. 

Deniz Balik: I think a difference between getting information from traditional forms of media and new forms in the digital is the phenomenon of going viral. It brings with it the spontaneous and instantaneous gathering of people. This can also be instrumentalized to gather people for political events. This can be linked again to ideas of interruption and intervention. Also the amount of information has changed in comparison with hard-copy media. It introduces a new freedom to exchange and develop ideas.

John Hill: I would like to find the difference between something traditional and something new or something pre-digital and post-digital. But there is a difference between reception and some kind of co production. People that have been previously passive receivers are turned into co-producers. 

Audience Question: With technology there is more and more the talk about a Hegelian “big other” that is always watching. With your practices so closely linked to technology, I was wondering how you perceive that? 

John Hill: This idea of the post-humanism or trans-humanism where you are looking at things that are part-human and part-technology is something that has always existed. But it is very interesting now when it becomes more apparent, more important and has more effects on how we experience the world. Technology is not separate from us. This has the effect that you are decentering the human or the user to some extent.

Deng Hanbin: I saw the video by David Hall in an exhibition last year and when I saw the video, I thought that something would happen. In our days interruptions have been absorbed by the system. We got used to being surprised. How can artists create interruptions that goes beyond the system and a system that is very powerful?

Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau: I am not sure if that is the case, but it is possible that David Hall made a statement about the passive use of the television with his work. What interests me in my research are interruptions that immediately go back into the system that they interrupt. I don’t think that you have to leave the system. John proposed alternative concepts for that in his presentation. You don’t make bad art if it doesn’t break the system. The interesting part is the space that you are opening up, the moment where flow stops. There is a focus on this gap or break. 

Antonie Angerer: Deniz, I thought it was very interesting how you showed the change from cartography to a mapping practice. Also how maps have always been very political means of defining borders. The project with your students was in that sense also highly political and visualizing social change. I would ask you to elaborate more on this political aspect of your practice. But this question also includes John under the flag of activism and intervention. John, you were talking of the need to become anti-social for creativity. I would like to ask you how anti-social and activism are connected?

Deniz Balik: We are in the age of anonymity and activism as much as we are in a post-digital era. Certain political systems don’t allow you to express yourselves freely. The project with the students reached a second phase, where a friend and computer engineer designed a program that consists of a digital city map. Local citizens can make marks and talk about issues they have. For example that some people put garbage in your backyard or that too many cars are parked in the main road. The issues are collected and artists and other people can work on them to create some interventions. 

John Hill: In order to be political the anti-social has to become something like an alternative social against the existing social relations. That always happens at a small-scale, but how can technology grow and amplify alternative kinds of social relations?


Deniz Balik

John Hill

Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau

Winnie Soon